Posts Tagged ‘crisis communications’
“My father taught me many things here. He taught me in this room. He taught me ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.’”
– Michael Coreleone (Al Pacino), The Godfather Part Two
I heard a story many years ago about a disgruntled ex-employee who became a thorn in the side of his former company’s board of directors. So many years have passed since I heard the story that I no longer know the source, or even whether the story was true or apocryphal. Nonetheless, the story’s moral is something we can all learn from.
After every board meeting, the story goes, the ex-employee would write about the board’s proceedings. The board members were confused about how he got the information—the meeting was closed—and surmised that someone must have been leaking to him. Trouble was, no one could determine who the leaker was, and meeting after meeting, the ex-employee kept posting sensitive details to the Internet.
His postings were somewhat accurate, though not entirely, and he would add his own negative commentary to each of the board’s actions. The company’s current employees eagerly awaited each of his updates, and word of his latest articles spread through the company’s ranks by the next morning’s coffee break.
The standard crisis communications playbook might have sought to discredit the ex-employee, or to post a response that detailed his inaccuracies, or to file some legal action against him, or to take additional security precautions for board meetings.
But this board chose to do something counterintuitive. They decided to invite the ex-employee to their board meetings. They calculated that if the man got to know them, he would realize that their motives weren’t as nefarious as he suspected. And they surmised that even if the man continued to print confidential information, at least he would get his facts straight if he heard them first hand.
As the board suspected, the tone of the ex-employee’s posts softened after they accorded him with respect and brought him into the fold. The board wasn’t always happy with his posts, but the articles were less unfavorable than they had been in the past. The board considered its decision a success.
Am I suggesting that you should allow your harshest critics to attend your most sensitive meetings? No. But like so many of the tactics I describe on this blog, I hope you’ll consider this tactic as another tool available to you, another arrow in your PR quiver. I suspect most of you will never need, nor want, to deploy it. But this story has stuck with me for years, probably because its underlying truth teaches all of us a lesson that may one day come in handy.
What do you think? Please leave your reaction and thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: crisis communications, PR, Public Relations
Posted in Crisis Communications | 4 Comments »
Maureen Sabolinski is the superintendent of schools for the Town of Franklin, Massachusetts.
According to Boston’s FOX 25, a teacher at one of her schools—Franklin High School—”is reportedly under investigation for ‘serious allegations of alleged misconduct.’” Sabolinski told FOX 25 that “the allegations involve a high school teacher, and they came out after a staff member saw something on Twitter.”
Ms. Sabolinski started out okay by making a reasonably good statement about the incident, saying, “It’s a pity and we’ve all felt very sick and devastated. It’s a breach of trust. Parents send their children to us and, if an adult makes a bad choice or blurs the lines, it impacts us all as educators.”
But then things got very, very strange.
The day after releasing that statement, she agreed to give a news conference—but only under one condition: that the television cameras didn’t show her face.
For some reason, FOX 25 agreed to her terms and shot her at an angle from behind. That angle didn’t exactly obscure her features—you can still make out part of her face, her hair, and her back—but it left an unmistakable impression that she was an eccentric person who may have had something to hide.
According to the FOX anchor, Ms. Sabolinski didn’t want to show her face because “the story wasn’t about her.” But that’s the case for corporate and organizational leaders much of the time, and they’re still expected to act as spokespersons for incidents that occur under their watch.
Plus, as the school superintendent, this story was partially about her, insofar as she’s the person who’s expected to handle the situation responsibly while keeping parents informed about her actions. Her job in a crisis is to convey a sense of confidence and competence—and hiding her face didn’t help her send that message successfully.
All Ms. Sabolinski had to do was make a statement that expressed her commitment to learning more about the incident and that pledged to take whatever actions were necessary to ensure the safety of her students. Even the news anchors seemed to grasp the proper crisis management response: get in front of the story and make a short statement that is limited in scope.
Instead, she made a bizarre demand—Don’t show my face!—and earned a merciless five-minute television segment as a result.
A tip o’ the hat to Bill Harlow and Fred Francis of the 15-Seconds blog, who saw this story before I did.
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Tags: crisis communications, Maureen Sabolinski
Posted in Crisis Communications | 5 Comments »
If you thought the New York City mayoral race would get more civil as Anthony Weiner started sinking in the polls and heading toward what will hopefully be a life of J.D. Salinger-like obscurity, you’re wrong.
Two other leading Democratic contenders—Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio—have created plenty of their own drama with a recent kerfuffle over a media misquote
The trouble began when The New York Times star columnist Maureen Dowd mangled a quote from de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, who was speaking about her husband’s opponent, Ms. Quinn.
Here’s how Ms. Dowd quoted Ms. McCray in her story:
“She’s not accessible,” McCray says. “She’s not the kind of person I feel I can go up to and talk to about issues like taking care of children at a young age and paid sick leave.”
That quote was particularly edgy, since it could be interpreted as a smear against Ms. Quinn, who is a lesbian without children. Ms. Quinn blasted Ms. McCray’s statement.
But it’s not actually what McCray said. She was misquoted.
It turns out that Bill de Blasio’s campaign had recorded the interview. They released the audio of the relevant portion, which shows that the comments were made in a slightly broader context. (Maureen Dowd later blamed the noise in the café and a lousy tape recorder for her fumble; The New York Times issued a lengthy correction.)
“Well, I’m a woman, and she’s not speaking to the issues that I care about, and I think a lot of women feel the same way. I don’t see her speaking to the concerns of women who have to take care of children at a young age or send them to school and after school, paid sick days, issues in the workplace — she’s not speaking to any of those issues. What can I say? And she’s not accessible, she’s not the kind of person that I feel that I can go up and talk to and have a conversation with about those things, and I suspect that other women feel the same thing that I’m feeling.”
My New Advice About Recording Interviews with Reporters
In this case, the difference between the two quotes wasn’t terribly dramatic. But it could have been—and had Mr. de Blasio’s campaign not recorded this interview independently, his cries of “My wife was misquoted!” would have likely fallen on deaf ears.
I’ve previously written that you shouldn’t record your interviews with reporters except for the most challenging situations, since doing so can lead to a climate of mistrust and suspicion before you even begin speaking. I’d continue to stand by that advice for “everyday” interviews—those that don’t hold your company’s, organization’s, or campaign’s reputation in the balance.
But my thinking has evolved on this issue, and I’d now advise spokespersons for political campaigns, businesses dealing with controversial issues, and those dealing with unfriendly media—among others—to consider recording their raw interviews with reporters. That’s not just because reporters occasionally seek a “gotcha” moment, but because even journalists of full integrity can make honest mistakes. And if they do, your recording may be your only evidence that you were wronged.
Without that evidence, it’s easy to see how a single misquote could be all it takes to destroy your candidacy, your company’s stock price, or your reputation.
One final point: Some states require two-party notification. If you’re recording your interviews over the phone, check the laws in your state. To help preserve your long-term relationship with reporters, you should probably tell them you’re recording regardless of the state law.
What do you think? Do you ever record raw copies of your media interviews? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.
Tags: Bill de Blasio, Chirlane McCray, Christine Quinn, crisis communications, Maureen Dowd, media relations tips, media training tips, PR, Public Relations, The New York Times, working with reporters
Posted in Crisis Communications | 5 Comments »
Today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which is being marked by Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter (among others) at the Lincoln Memorial today.
In many communities across the United States, today is a day to reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, discuss the state of race relations, and learn from his heroic example.
Unless, of course, you’re the Golf Channel, which decided to use Dr. King’s legacy to get its 218,000 Twitter followers to talk about….golf.
That tweet certainly isn’t going to help golf’s reputation as a sport for rich white guys.
It minimizes the significance of today’s anniversary and represents the lowest form of newsjacking. Worse, their hashtag, #DreamDay, is being used by people who want to discuss the Martin Luther King anniversary, not be subjected to a meme created by an overambitious sports marketer.
Twitter responded to the Golf Channel’s tweet quickly, with some people suggesting that the Golf Channel take a mulligan for this tweet. (If only it were that easy for them.)
The Golf Channel quickly deleted its tweet, but hasn’t acknowledged or apologized for it as of this writing.
Brands, this really is pretty easy. Don’t tweet about scones after the Boston Marathon bombing, don’t sell your new spring clothing line with an international uprising as your hook, and don’t do tasteless marketing on important historical anniversaries.
Update 1: August 28, 2013, 2:40 P.M.
The Golf Channel apologized for its earlier tweet.
I’d like to hear more about what went wrong and the procedures the Golf Channel will put in place to make sure they don’t commit another social media gaffe. Also, a “we’re sorry” wouldn’t hurt.
Update 2: August 28, 2013, 5:00 P.M.
I guess Herr Foods didn’t get the memo.
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Tags: crisis communications, Martin Luther King, social media, The Golf Channel, Twitter
Posted in Crisis Communications | 2 Comments »
AOL’s CEO, Tim Armstrong, fired someone late last week.
Corporate CEOs fire people all the time. But what made this firing newsworthy is that Armstrong fired one of his executives during a conference call, on which more than 1,000 employees of AOL’s local news platform Patch were listening in.
Armstrong was upset that Patch Creative Director Abel Lenz took a photo of him during the conference call, at which point he icily—and casually—said:
“Abel, put that camera down, now. Abel, you’re fired. Out.” (Audio below.)
Armstrong (kind of) apologized in a memo addressed to “AOLers” yesterday, but something he wrote caught my eye:
“As you know, I am a firm believer in open meetings, open Q&A, and this level of transparency requires trust across AOL. Internal meetings of a confidential nature should not be filmed or recorded so that our employees can feel free to discuss all topics openly. Abel had been told previously not to record a confidential meeting, and he repeated that behavior on Friday, which drove my actions.”
If Mr. Lenz willingly disregarded a warning not to record his CEO, his firing may have justified.
But what struck me is how preposterous it is for Mr. Armstrong to expect that a conference call with more than 1,000 employees—many of whom are journalists—would remain confidential.
We’re not operating in 1996 anymore (although AOL would probably like that). When speaking to large groups of people, corporate executives—or any of us, really—should have no reasonable expectation of privacy. They should act as if everything they say could be made public, as it was in this case, and comport themselves accordingly.
If this was an in-person meeting, I suppose a brutish team of security guards could have sequestered each attendee’s smartphone, stripped them of recording devices, and collected their notepads. But no similar precaution could be taken when more than 1,000 people are listening in from various sites around the country.
Now, whether CEOs should be able to talk privately to their employees without their words being broadcast globally is a different topic. I’m sympathetic to those longing for days when they could have a frank exchange without fear of it being made public. But longing for those days is like longing for a return to the heyday of the eight-track tape and the facsimile machine. It ain’t going to happen.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: Abel Lenz, AOL, crisis communications, Tim Armstrong
Posted in Crisis Communications | 9 Comments »
Riley Cooper, a wide receiver with the Philadelphia Eagles, earned the critical glare of the media spotlight this week after a secretly recorded video emerged of him using racist language (Riley is white).
Cooper was attending a concert by country star Kenny Chesney and wanted to go backstage. The African American security guard wouldn’t let him pass through a checkpoint. And that’s when this happened:
“I will jump that fence and fight every ni*ger here, bro.”
Riley has rightly been blasted for his use of racist language (not to mention the threat of violence). And although I offer no excuses for his inappropriate and incendiary language, his reaction to this incident has been rock solid.
First, Cooper sent these tweets:
On Wednesday, he faced cameras and delivered this press conference:
Elements of a Good Apology
A good apology is one that is sincere, not contrived; is motivated by the right reasons, not by hope for personal gain; that demonstrates a genuine sense of remorse, not dismissiveness. A good apology conveys an unmistakable impression that the person understands their infraction and is genuinely committed to change.
Cooper succeeded on all of those counts.
He looked dismayed, ashamed, and pained during the press conference. He refused several opportunities to make excuses for his behavior, such as when he refused to go into details about what caused the confrontation or make his alcoholic consumption that night a reason for his behavior. After the press conference ended, he apologized to his teammates directly.
Some readers might conclude that he only apologized because he got caught and that his less guarded moment revealed more about his true character. But as someone who reviews a lot of apologies in these types of situations, this one struck me as sincere. I suspect this incident won’t have a devastating long-term effect on Cooper’s career.
Still, there’s a lesson here for all of us. As I’ve written so many times before on this blog, today’s media culture requires public figures (and the rest of us) to comport ourselves in public as if there’s always a camera filming us. In many cases, there is.
Update: August 2, 2013, 3:45 p.m.
According to ESPN, Cooper’s teammates have not rallied around him, and this incident might cost him his job in Philadelphia. There’s also rampant speculation that some players around the league will make Cooper a “target” on the field by punishing him with particularly hard hits.
All of that may seem to contradict my point about the long-term impact this will have on his career, but that’s yet to be seen. Keep in mind that the NFL has welcomed back players involved in homicides, acts of violence, and dog fighting rings.
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Tags: crisis communications, Riley Cooper, sports
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Anthony Weiner’s Communications Director, Barbara Morgan, responded angrily yesterday to a former intern, Olivia Nuzzi, who had written negatively about the Weiner campaign.
According to Hunter Walker of Talking Points Memo: (Warning: Graphic language below)
“TPM called Weiner’s communications director Barbara Morgan to discuss an unrelated story Tuesday and she went off on a curse-filled rant about Nuzzi, describing her as a fame hungry “bitch” who “sucked” at her job. Morgan also called Nuzzi a “slutbag,” “twat,” and “cunt” while threatening to sue her.”
“It’s all bullshit,” she said. “I mean, it’s such bullshit. She could fucking — fucking twat.”
After this story blew up on social media last night, Morgan apologized, saying:
“In a moment of frustration, I used inappropriate language in what I thought was an off the record conversation. It was wrong and I am very sorry, which is what I said tonight when I called and emailed Olivia to apologize.”
There are a few separate issues here.
First, Morgan appears to have gone “off the record” without gaining the prior consent of the reporter.
Any communications director should know the risks of doing so and be a lot smarter about the times they do go off the record. This is a point even our most novice media training students seem to understand.
Second, Morgan appears to be implying that the comments would have been more acceptable had they been made “off the record.”
That a communications professional would ever think it appropriate to use such language to attack a woman is outrageous. The fact that Ms. Morgan is a woman doesn’t give her license to use such misogynistic language to describe another woman. Even if the off the record agreement had been accepted by both sides, the dramatic nature of this exchange would have encouraged some reporters and editors to render the agreement null and void.
Third, and perhaps most odd, her response was totally disproportionate.
Yes, the intern in question, OIivia Nuzzi, wrote an unfavorable piece about the campaign, including a comment that suggested that Ms. Morgan—and others in the office—had a “short resume.” By responding to the piece with such graphic language, Morgan ensured Nuzzi’s piece would receive even more coverage. Her response should have been calmly dismissive.
With any other candidate, Morgan would be fired immediately. Given that Anthony Weiner is her boss, it wouldn’t be surprising if this politically depressing and ever-sordid drama continues to drag on.
Update, July 31, 2013, 8:30 p.m.
I appeared on The Crisis Show with crisis pro Rich Klein earlier tonight to discuss Ms. Morgan’s contribution to the latest Anthony Weiner scandal. The video is below.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Tags: Anthony Weiner, Barbara Morgan, crisis communications, Olivia Nuzzi, politics
Posted in Crisis Communications | 11 Comments »
More than 40 people were killed earlier this month when a 73-car train filled with oil derailed in Quebec and slammed into downtown Lac-Mégantic.
The accident, Canada’s deadliest in almost 150 years, was horrific—some people sitting in a café, for example, were reportedly burned alive after fleeing, while others jumped from a building’s third floor to escape the inferno.
Edward Burkhardt, the chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways (whose train was responsible for the damage), managed to make matters worse. He waited several days before showing up and giving a press conference—and when he did, he made an even bigger mess of things.
Mr. Burkhardt comes across in this press conference with the analytical nature one might expect from someone in a more technical profession. In so doing, he demonstrates that there is a mile-wide chasm between intelligence and emotional intelligence—and while he might have a lot of the former, it’s clear that he has little of the latter.
This press conference is a good example of what not to do. It’s worth watching in its entirety.
1. It was all about him.
He began the press conference by talking about his own feelings: ”I feel absolutely awful about this. I’m devastated by what’s occurred in this community. I have never been involved in anything remotely approaching this in my whole life.”
That’s not a bad start, but he failed to follow it up with a genuine statement of concern or commitment for the victims and the community. As a result, the inescapable takeaway was that his primary concern was himself, not the victims. (That may or may not be true, but it’s what his communications style reasonably led many people to believe.) The fact that he reportedly hadn’t met with the victims’ families didn’t help.
2. He showed up too late.
At the very beginning of the press conference, he perseverated over the question of why he hadn’t shown up sooner. “Frankly, it was easier [remaining in my office] than running around here with a cell phone in my hand and trying to do it from here.”
That may be true—but he seems completely oblivious to the fact that being present and exhibiting genuine compassion for victims is a necessary component of modern day crisis communications. In fact, he shockingly told one reporter, “I’m not a communications professional. I’m a manager,” as if competent management doesn’t require competent communications. (Plus, he was the Vice President of Marketing for Chicago and North Western Transportation, where he presumably needed to know something about communications.)
3. He talked business.
Burkhardt talked about insurance. He also talked about bankruptcy, future plans for the railroad, claims, and a key customer. None of that was appropriate. His responses should have maintained a laser-like focus on the victims: “There will be a time and place to discuss the financial impact of this incident on our company. Right now, nothing is more important than putting plans in place to make sure these families and this community are taken care of.”
4. He disrespected the community.
Incredibly, Mr. Burkhardt tried to assume the “victim’s” mantle, telling reporters:
“I thought people would respond to my willingness to come there…I mean, they were screaming about how I took three days to get there…People wanted to throw stones at me. I showed up and they threw stones. But that doesn’t accomplish anything.”
Those comments lead inevitably to point number five…
5. He looked like a jerk.
Mr. Burkhardt was condescending toward the press, even turning sarcastic when he asked one reporter, “Were you here a few minutes ago when I answered that?”
Given his demeanor, I question his decision to give a full press conference. He might have done better in a one-on-one format (particularly with print reporters who wouldn’t have shown video of his non-empathetic tone). He needed to say something, but I wonder whether a more able communicator within his company should have done the longer press conference. That’s not preferable in a crisis of this magnitude, but in this case, it might have been a more sound decision.
The lowest point came when he engaged in a pathetic attempt at wit. When one reporter asked, “How much are you worth?” Burkhardt responded, “A whole lot less than I was on Saturday.” In terms of summing up his self-focused tone, that quip was perhaps his most telling remark of all.
Photo Credit: Ottawa Citizen
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Tags: crisis communications, Edward Burkhardt, Lac-Mégantic, Maine & Atlantic Railways, media training disasters, Montreal, press conference
Posted in Media Training Disasters | 3 Comments »